Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Viewing Nicolai Fechin

For those of you who can get to Seattle by 19 May, consider visiting the Frye Museum which has an exhibit of paintings and drawings by Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955).

Fechin's Wikipedia entry is here and I wrote about his Taos, New Mexico house and studio here. But if you have time to go to only one link, go here to Matthew Innis' blog for biographical information plus details concerning Fechin's palette and technique (the latter Innis regards with horror).

Fechin's basic style changed little from the time he completed his training, though individual works fell within a range of "painterlyness" (I made that word up, I think) from kinda finished to pretty sloppy, the more finished examples being commissioned portraits. While I can't say that I love Fechin's paintings, I find them interesting and instructive.

The archetypical Fechin painting featuring a human subject follows a formula. Skin, especially the female face, is depicted smoothly; Innis states that Fechin would wet his fingers with his tongue and finger-paint the smoothness. Subjects' hands were more likely to be done in a sketchy manner, while nude bodies fell somewhere between. Backgrounds are typically highly sketchy and painterly to the point that they often seem like the New York school of Abstract Expressionist art from the 1950s. Sometimes recognizable objects appear, other times not. Being somewhat lazy myself, I wonder if Fechin adopted this kind of background treatment to avoid having to get bogged down painting details.

The exhibit at the Frye was an excellent opportunity to examine a large number of Fechin paintings and draw some conclusions of my own. Below are a few examples of Fechin's work to set the scene; the lower two were on display.

Gallery

Konstantin Mihailovich Lepilov, artist - 1909

Portrait of My Father - 1912

Eya in Peasant Blouse - 1933

The upper two paintings are of men, so the faces are not smooth, in contrast to the lower portrait of Fechin's daughter. In many of his works, Fechin's application of paint ranges from thin to thick. In the portrait of his father, you can see thinly painted sketch lines and washes supplemented by built-up areas for the background and flesh. The Lepilov portrait is also fairly early and follows the same pattern, Eya's portrait was made more than 20 years after his father's, and is more typical,

Images of Fechin's paintings fail to convey the actual appearance more than in most cases because his work usually contains passages of heavy impasto than can be hard to discern. In the case of Eya, if you click on the image to enlarge, you might be able to notice extremes of thick and thin paint in the lower right quadrant of the painting. In some cases, Fechin painted thickly with a brush, and at other times, use of a palette knife is evident. Innis says that he would apply with a brush first and then swipe with the knife at an angle to the brushstroke.

Innis also asserts that Fechin's techiques resulted in his paintings being in bad shape even before they were finished. Whereas I do not doubt that, nearly all the works I saw at the Frye seemed to be in good condition. Given Fechin's use of both washes and impasto on completed paintings, such works would probably be a nightmare to restore, so I contend that many have aged well.

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